Remembering Ronan Point

Originally posted on May 14 on my blog for Inside Housing.

This week marks the 50th anniversary of what was seen until recently as the biggest disaster in the history of council housing.

At 5.45 in the morning on May 16, 1968, a cake decorator called Ivy Hodge put the kettle on for a cup of tea. A gas explosion triggered by a faulty connection to her cooker blew out the walls to her flat and triggered the progressive collapse of one corner of the 22-storey Ronan Point tower block in Newham in east London.

Four tenants were killed and several more had miraculous escapes but the fact that the explosion happened so early in the morning prevented an even worse disaster – most people were still asleep in the relative safety of their bedrooms rather than exposed to the collapse in their kitchens.

That aside, the most shocking thing about the disaster was that it happened in a new building and the first tenants had moved in two months before.

A public inquiry quickly established not just the fault in the gas connection but fundamental flaws in the large panel, system-built design. The collapse could have been triggered not just by an explosion but also by high winds and fire

That led to reform of the rules on gas safety and a shake-up of the building regulations to ensure that the structure of tall buildings became more robust.

Over the years, Ronan Point came to be seen as the high water mark of both council housing and modernist architecture.

As time went on the blame was increasingly laid at the door of architects, local authorities and even the whole idea of council housing. It’s certainly true that some designs were flawed and untested and that some councillors arrogant, self-aggrandising and even corrupt.

But some important factors are edited out of that account.

First, the construction of tower blocks was encouraged by central government ministers of both parties. Conservatives and Labour governments alike focussed relentlessly on increasing the supply of homes –  for understandable reasons.

As John Grindrod points out in Concretopia, Newham had built almost 15,000 new homes by 1968, a post-war record for a London borough, but there were still 9,000 slums to be cleared in the area.

Tower blocks were heavily incentivised by central government. The Tory 1956 Housing Subsidies Act, for example, incentivised tower blocks by paying progressively higher subsidies for buildings over six, 15 and 20 storeys.

Second, most of the large panel system blocks like Ronan Point were built by big construction companies using systems licensed from continental Europe.

Industrialised building methods offered the prospect of delivering homes more quickly without being constrained by skills shortages in conventional building trades.

That handed those firms enormous power and contracts were often awarded with limited or no competition and with minimal design input.

The system used on Ronan Point and its sister blocks, for example, was developed in Denmark but had only been used before on buildings up to six storeys.

Third, the disaster shook but did not break confidence in tower blocks and they continued to be built in large numbers, including the robustly designed Grenfell Tower in west London (designed in 1967 and completed in 1974).

And, as John Boughton points out in his excellent new book Municipal Dreams, even in 1968 the emphasis had already begun to shift to lower-rise development and rehabilitation, with the premium for flats above six storeys abolished two years earlier.

For all the part it played in the rejection of the mass housing model, he points out that ‘with lessons learnt and aspirations honed and tempered, the decade that followed would see the construction of some of the finest council housing ever built. Sadly, that in the end would prove to be its swansong’.

Following the inquiry, Ronan Point was rebuilt and strengthened and tenants moved back in to their homes in 1973.

But tenants and other campaigners continued to warn that large panel system blocks were fundamentally unsafe and shoddy building work meant that significant defects quickly emerged (see Martin Hilditch’s interview with Sam Webb for more on this).

By the 1980s tenants at Ronan Point were reporting that they could smell food being cooked 20 storeys below them and hear people’s conversations in flats above and below them. Finally the decision was taken to demolish it and similar blocks.

After Ronan Point was taken down and inspected floor by floor, tests found that the buildings still had a weak structure that would have collapsed in a fire, high wind or explosion. Newspapers and drinks cans were found in the joints between the panels rather than concrete.

At first glance the two disasters seem very different: Ronan Point was a newly built large panel system block that suffered a partial collapse after an explosion whereas Grenfell Tower was a newly refurbished, non-system block that suffered a devastating fire.

One became seen as a symbol of the failures of council housing, the other as a symbol of the way that poor people are treated in the richest part of the country.

But look a little deeper and the parallels become all too clear. The Grenfell inquiry is taking much longer than the one for Ronan Point but it would be surprising if it did not highlight a whole series of common factors.

In the aftermath of both, it was clear that warnings were not heeded: partial collapses of other buildings windows being blown in on tower blocks in the case of Ronan Point; and a series of other fires, most notably at Lakanal House, in the case of Grenfell.

Both highlighted concerns about the way building projects are procured and carried out, the way that the quality of the work is checked and the adequacy of the building regulations.

Both showed the dangers of not listening to tenants. As Frances Clarke put it in a piece for Inside Housing just after the Grenfell fire, how was it that we did not learn from the experience of Ronan Point, where the shoddy workmanship meant that flats designed to withstand fire for an hour only lasted 11 minutes?

Both led to big problems for landlords rushing to make their homes safe: in 1969 the Greater London Council faced a financial crisis as a result of the £3 million bill for strengthening its blocks; in 2018 the problems are spread across council, housing association and private landlords and affect tenants and leaseholders alike.

And both point to the way that a focus on targets and cost savings and reliance on private contractors to deliver them can be a recipe for cutting corners on safety. The pay of the largely unskilled workforce assembling Ronan Point’s panels on sites depended on the speed at which they built it.

But perhaps the most worrying legacy of Ronan Point is that the story did not end when it was finally demolished in 1986.

The disaster did lead to an immediate overhaul of Part A of the building regulations to ensure that the design of tall buildings was sufficiently robust.

But in the wake of Grenfell, safety checks on large panel system blocks revealed some where the strengthening work had never been carried out and the gas supply had not been disconnected.

It was a shocking reminder of the way that the balance between safety and cost can slowly tilt back following a disaster.

As the debate about combustibility, desktop studies and prescription in Part B of the building regulations continues, we would do well to remember that.

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